Modern In A Post-Modern World

November 7, 2007 | 3 5 min read

There’s an old Woody Allen nightclub routine, dating back to his stand-up days in the mid-60s, that goes a little like this:

“I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that is was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth.

That winter Picasso lived on the Rue d’Barque, and he had just painted a picture of a naked dental hygienist in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Gertrude Stein said it was a good picture, but not a great one, and I said it could be a fine picture. We laughed over it and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.

Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came home from their wild New Years Eve party. It was April. Scott had just written Great Expectations, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said it was a good book, but there was no need to have written it, ’cause Charles Dickens had already written it. We laughed over it, and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.

That winter we went to Spain to see Manolete fight, and he looked to be eighteen, and Gertrude Stein said no, he was nineteen, but that he only looked eighteen, and I said sometimes a boy of eighteen will look nineteen, whereas other times a nineteen year old can easily look eighteen… That’s the way it is with a true Spaniard. We laughed over that… and Gertrude Stein punched me in the mouth.”

Alan Rudolph’s 1988 film The Moderns dips into the same well. Set in Paris, in 1926, the central story is a fictional love-triangle. Weaving in and out of the story, however, are Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, being oh so iconic and giving the film much of its historical flavor, and its humor.

“Modern” is certainly a fluid term, and to flatly state that any one era permanently defines the term is, I suppose, arrogant. But Paris in the early part of last century, and in particular the 1920s was, indeed, a remarkable era of Modernism in which literature, visual arts, music and the theories behind all of these not only propelled themselves forward but bounced off of each other.

And at the centre of it all was Gertrude Stein, mentor to such then-unknown writers as Ernest Hemingway, champion of unknown painters like Matisse and Picasso, writer and linguistic innovator who would herself be influenced by Picasso’s stylistic shifts to the point where her own writing was seen as cubist. Her Saturday night salons brought together the painters and writers who are now seen as being the stars of the modern era. She introduced the world to the Moderns.

coverThe best memoir of this remarkable era is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Written late in his life, these twenty short, masterfully crafted vignettes depict his life in Paris from 1921 to 1926, a period of tutelage, as it were, at the feet of Gertrude Stein, whose pronouncements on what was “important” and what was “modern,” were taken as gospel by the young writers and painters of Paris. Stein impressed upon Hemingway the necessity of choosing the exact words to convey the reality of the story, a lesson which informed everything he would write.

A Moveable Feast is also a memoir of a place, specifically Montparnasse on Paris’ left bank. We see Hemingway at home with his wife Hadley and small child, braving cold Parisian winters. We see him in the cafes and bars of the quarter, surrounded by strangers, yet blocking them out and focusing on the writing at hand. We see his blossoming friendship with the troubled Fitzgerald, and his association with Ezra Pound. It’s a fascinating collection of stories, and remains my favorite Hemingway book. You feel like you’re reading a fine short-story collection. These tales easily match the clean, precise prose of his best short fiction. Except, I realize, for the “fiction” part. But that’s nitpicking.

coverAnother book that covers some of the same territory, and features many of the same players, is Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This memoir, written by Stein in the 1930s, adopts the gossipy, conversational tone of her partner, Miss Toklas, recounting the story of her life, and centering on her relationship with Miss Stein, who effectively becomes the central character, the catalyst in this “autobiography.” So, despite the title, it’s really an autobiography of Gertrude Stein herself, who suspends her normally abstract literary style to assume the voice of Miss Toklas. Which I admit all seems very post-modern for a memoir by and of one of “the moderns.” The conceit – adopting Miss Toklas’s voice, spares the reader what might have been a head-scratchingly abstract memoir. On the other hand, Stein’s adoption of her partner’s flighty tone fills the memoir with an inordinate amount of frivolousness and gossip.

Still, there’s enough meat in this memoir to make it a must-read for anyone interested in this era of literature and painting. Stein, through Toklas’s eyes, gives us glimpses into the formative years of the wonderful composer Erik Satie, and era-defining painters such as Picasso and Matisse, who were regulars at Stein’s salons, and whose early works were on display at the Montparnasse home shared by Stein and Toklas. And, not surprisingly, young Hemingway makes several appearances in Stein’s memoir. A favorite of hers (though, seemingly, less so of Alice’s) we see her intellectually doting on him with great affection. And, as in Hemingway’s memoir, Paris itself is a character, both Montparnasse on the left bank, and also the storied Montmartre further north.

As it happens, I was in Paris in early September, having come up by train from southwestern France, and was met at the Gare d’Austerlitz by my friends Doug and Anna who had come down from London. Item one on the agenda: a lingering lunch, replete with champagne, wines, and spirits at the Closerie de Lilas, a favorite haunt of Hemingway’s, and a locale that figures prominently in A Moveable Feast. This set the tone for the next few days. If Hemingway ate or drank or wrote there, who are we to walk by without symbolically paying our respects.

It’s all a romantic conceit, of course. Paris moved on after the “Modern” era ended, but for fans of Hemingway and the Moderns, why not let A Moveable Feast spread itself before us? Place Contrescarpe, rue Cardinal Lemoine, the Pantheon: there they are. There’s something to be said for sitting on a stoop across from the Pantheon at two in the morning, Doug and Anna poring over the map, me staring at the Pantheon, mesmerized by its grandeur, my stupor enhanced doubly by the two a.m. September stillness.

The adventure continued the next day. Anna having returned to London, Doug and I decided to trek up through Montparnasse, across the river, through central Paris, up to Picasso’s digs. Up to Montmartre. Me hobbling, having fallen moments after stepping onto the sidewalk.

I do this. I fall down a lot. A flight of recently polished stairs, I can careen down it in half a second. Stepping off my old back porch after a light snowfall? I become a gymnast, somersaulting down with expertise. And then there’s the now-legendary “incident” on the stairs leading down to London’s Leicester Square tube station a few years ago. I slipped on the rain-slicked top step and bounced down the remainder, with no one, NO ONE, seeming to notice.

So there I was, limping my way from Montparnasse up to Montmartre, looking like a transplanted Ratzo Rizzo to my friend Doug’s Joe Buck, knowing that somehow, somewhere, Ernest Hemingway was shaking his head and Gertrude Stein was rolling her eyes. But what the hell, in our post-modern world, you’re only modern once.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.